Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Partying like it's 2019

Panny was the gateway to my new neighborhood three years ago. Now she's no longer my neighbor.

L to R: me, Panny, Socheat
I first met her when I visited her little shop for a Coke. I nervously asked the women playing cards out front if someone could briefly help answer a question for my Khmer homework. Panny was grumpy that I'd tried to interrupt the game and suspicious of me, not realizing I'd recently moved onto her street. She made me interview the only guy present, teasing him that since he was single, he should talk to the foreign girl. I almost didn't go back. But I knew the people gathered around her table were the kind I wanted to get to know: not tempted to switch to English, not friends with many foreigners, not especially rich or poor by Phnom Penh standards, sort of "average" urban Cambodians. I wanted a place at that table, so I returned each week, buying more snacks and drinks and asking for permission to listen in on their conversations. 

Panny and her twins. I've spent countless hours sitting at this table.
At first she couldn't understand my Khmer well, plus she's introverted and not a people pleaser. (She and another neighbor, Socheat, came once for dinner, but she refused a second invitation because "I can't eat your cooking.") So my visits' success depended on her customers and her former next-door neighbor who sold rice porridge. But she slowly warmed up, exposing me to dozens of neighboring customers. When she had twin girls last summer, she let me enter her home (one simple room behind the store) to help alongside Socheat. At Panny's request, I occasionally helped her older daughters, now around ages 11 and 7, practice English. We especially enjoyed reading children's books together when Covid closed schools in March.

She and her family moved in April into their own house, 8 km farther from town. They've been paying bit by bit to build it, and moved into it still unfinished. She promised to have me over once it was done, but without an address or specific directions, I wasn't sure how that would happen. In the meantime, I've been delighted that her friend and fellow neighbor Lida took over the shop. Lida used to hang out at Panny's shop a lot, but I think she gets bored being there alone now, so she's been eager to chat with me.

One day, Panny left me a voice message on Facebook. "Come to my housewarming party next weekend! Lida and Socheat and everyone will be there." Later I learned it was timed to coincide with the twins' first birthday, a big deal here. Showing up to events is a key way to show you care about someone; I even delayed my vacation to attend. On Sunday night, five women and two kids got dressed up, piled into Socheat's 5-seater car, and sought this elusive home, bouncing down a series of muddy roads. 

I got advice from Lida and my landlady on the dress code, since I don't have much experience with housewarming parties. They told me I could go simpler than the bling and professional hair/makeup expected for wedding guests (similar to Panny's style here). Black and white clothes were also OK, though these funeral colors are taboo at weddings. I straightened my hair and wore a simple dress with dangly earrings and a bit of makeup. On the way there, they were chatting about how they don't usually wear much makeup these days and this party was a rare exception. I told them, "Yeah, I'm not very good at makeup," and one of them looked at me and said, "You look better without it." Unfortunately, it felt less like "You're too pretty to need makeup" and more like "What made you do that to your face today?" Laughing, I asked if I should wash it off, but the conversation had raced on and no one replied. At least I got compliments on my dress!

L to R: the male MC, Mr. Panny (I still don't know his name!), and Panny
Besides the guests' appearance, it was almost exactly like a wedding. The same colorful canopy tent with fake flowers in the street outside their house. The same round tables with family-style dinners served course by course on a lazy Susan: nuts and fried snacks, processed meat, salad with pork, fish with bok choy, fried rice, and corn pudding. The same silly string spraying everywhere at a pivotal moment: in this case, when we sang "Happy Birthday" with a soundtrack boasting multiple verses. The same karaoke, mostly by neighbors I've often heard out my window. The same dancing counterclockwise around a table near the stage, two steps forward and one step back, slowly rotating your wrists and waving your fingers. The same frequent toasts, with free-flowing beer for the men, and soda or other sugary drinks for most women. The same giant amps, making my right eardrum throb in pain at the screechy high notes as I danced. (I'm still not sure how the birthday girls weren't screaming... maybe early hearing loss?) The same relative sitting at the entrance collecting cash gifts: $20 per person seemed the norm, a bit less than a wedding. The same MC's cracking jokes, doing funny voices, and moving the evening along. And guess who the male MC was? The guy who answered my questions the first day! He must have moved away, because I haven't seen him in a while. 

One difference is that unlike most weddings, this took place during rainy season. Sitting at the edge of the sideless tent with a slow drizzle outside, my hair instantly frizzed and my shoes were submerged in an inch of water from the afternoon downpour. Another difference is that they left the front of their home open so we could walk in and out of their living room. We took a quick tour of the downstairs and I learned a new phrase: Panny's family had bought a "pig snout" land plot, shaped almost like a triangle, so their house got narrower from the living room to the kitchen. 

Besides the typical Chinese-style altar on the floor, there was a special table set up with a portrait of Buddha and some offerings. That morning, the monks had come to bless the house, just as they would come to do wedding ceremonies. Like many people I know, Panny and her husband seem more interested in covering their bases by completing various Buddhist/animist protective rituals than in understanding the philosophy or reflecting on the extent to which they believe. Panny shies away even from mentioning religion with me, and her husband has told me a common line: "Buddhism and Christianity are basically the same, because they teach you to be good." 

Lida and me, having put up our now-frizzy hair 

Panny with our carload at the entrance
To my knowledge, nobody used hand sanitizer or masks, or mentioned Covid. Someone told me recently that Cambodians are "quick to fear, quick to forget." When the news broke about Covid in China back in January, with no cases here yet, Cambodia sold out of hand sanitizer and masks. In March and early April, since most cases were imported by Western tourists, I was getting nervous looks from strangers. But by this party in late June, we'd had just 7 new cases in the previous 2.5 months, and no deaths at all. Even though schools, religious centers, and movie theaters are still closed for the foreseeable future, the malls and restaurants are as crowded as ever - with masks becoming rarer - and people are turning out again for parties like this one, seemingly unconcerned. 

A packed-out mall parking lot. When did Phnom Penh get so many cars, anyway?

For whatever reason, Covid seems to be threatening Cambodia's economy much more than its citizens' health. The government has prioritized strict immigration policies over restrictions for those already here. So nobody seemed to mind crowding 80 people into a tent, sharing buffet spoons, passing around the babies, or dancing in close quarters. Hopefully it's not foolish, but I've generally taken my cues from those around me. If they're not scared of my foreigner germs, despite the narrative that Covid is a "foreigner problem," I don't want to seem scared of their germs either. 

Birthday sparklers

Can you recognize this Khmer cover of an American oldie?

Seeing Panny and her family made me wistful. I gave the oldest girl a quick hug and wondered when she'd last been hugged, since most Khmer families aren't big on physical affection with school-aged kids. I'd been hoping to keep growing closer with them. Now Panny doesn't seem to welcome me dropping by uninvited, and on a moto, she can't easily visit our neighborhood with all four kids. I'm praying that they'll connect with Khmer believers and that this isn't our last visit. 

But the evening together also amazed me at how far we've come. Thanks to Panny and her crew, I understand a lot more street Khmer. These neighbors are the ones who taught me about Khmer money-saving groups called "tongtin," the difference between kids' official names and their at-home names, how to play Khmer-style Bingo, how Cambodians care for newborns, and much more. They've helped me get over my stereotypes of "average" urban Cambodians and see their diversity as well as their commonalities. 

I wish I could tell my 2017 self, sheepishly skulking home and afraid to try again, that I'd eventually be the lone foreigner attending Panny's party, where I'd recognize at least half the guests. I'm not sure I could tell my 2017 self how weird that party would be in a global context where social distancing is a given. But social proximity has incredible value for building relationships. I'm thankful for all those visits around Panny's table, and for this opportunity... germs and all... to be there for her. 

Thursday, April 30, 2020

The hidden significance of children's books

"I have always imagined that Paradise would be a kind of library." 
Jorge Luis Borges

I've loved books longer than I can remember. Some of my favorite childhood memories involve books. One of my earliest ambitions was to be a children's librarian because I thought I could read all day. I don't know how many thousands of times someone read aloud to me, but I do know that thanks to my mom and dad and other patient read-aloud-ers, learning to read felt as natural as learning to breathe. 

My six years as an English teacher at Logos International School turned out to be a decent substitute for children's librarian. I put the above quote on my wall. I read aloud The Little Prince excerpts to my World Lit students, You Are Special in devotions, and The Day Jimmy's Boa Ate the Wash in English pronunciation class for my Khmer colleagues. A real highlight of working at Logos was the year I got to read to the 5th graders weekly during library time. My students even wrote children's books in French 2. I told them more than once, "If you're too old for children's books, you're too old to be alive." They didn't dare protest.
French 1 students visited French 2 for "story time" by the authors 

More recently, I've enjoyed reading with my nephews and nieces in the US. This winter, it was great introducing them to two family favorites, The Story about Ping and But No Elephants! The funniest experience was reading a fairly predictable book, Watch Me Hop. Here's a sample page: "I'm soft and furry and my ears flip-flop. I'm a bunny, watch me hop!" After the first few pages, I reached this one: "I have webbed feet and a fuzzy yellow top. I'm a chick, watch me..." and paused to let my niece complete the sentence. "Kill!" she piped up instantly. Well, that upped the book's intensity. 

March brought record opportunities to read with kids in Cambodia. My neighbor kids were off school with no online class, and two moms asked if I could teach their three girls English in all their newfound free time. (They knew some English already.) I got my Logos librarian neighbors to load me up with kids' books. There aren't many Khmer picture books, since Khmer has only 16 million native speakers worldwide, most of whom are fairly poor and not a great market for book distributors. So forget books with characters who look like the kids - these families can barely find books the parents can read. 

I don't think my neighbor kids own any fun books, just school workbooks, so this was very special for them. And tricky. One girl's little brother didn't know how to take care of books and kept stepping on them, trying to cut them with nail clippers, etc. while the others' baby sister kept grabbing and nearly tearing the pages. But we enjoyed ourselves.

Their favorite was one written by my neighbor back in the US, Just Enough and Not Too Much. In it, Simon lives alone and has a simple lifestyle, until he decides he needs MORE. We used the book in several ways: We counted the hairs, hats, etc. that he accumulates... named the colors... described items (big, funny, beautiful, etc.)... drew pictures of them... and most appealing: picked our favorites from each set. The oldest is a confident English reader, but the other two needed me to speak in a mixture of English and Khmer.

I tried to have the kids predict the story, which was funny because they kept guessing something different. "Simon's not happy. He wants more. What do you think he wants?" "A wife!" (The thought of living alone is very sad to most Cambodians, and Simon's "cozy little house" is bigger than both families' apartments combined.) "Now that he has all those chairs, will he be happy?" "Yes, he will!" Schools here rarely have students predict or reflect on stories, so I like to encourage kids to try when reading with me.

I haven't seen the kids in a month, even though there are no rules here about social distancing per se. (We have few officially reported Covid cases here, and the government just says 'avoid large gatherings.') One family just moved across the city, and the other sent their daughter (on the right, in red) to her grandparents' village for a while. So I treasure our opportunity to read those books together! But I'll at least see the girl in red again, and I'm pretty sure I know what book she'll ask me to bring.

I read several of those same books shortly afterward with my American teammate Liz and Ethan's kids, who had been housebound for a while with almost no visitors. The kids were so happy to have attention from a new adult, they asked to read each book twice! The first time through, they listened attentively and their comments stayed focused on the story. The second time, they got creative and had big plans for us to act out the stories or do peripherally related activities. Their family are huge readers, and they probably own more Khmer picture books (13) than both the other families combined... or really most Khmer families... not to mention English books. 

This children's book, used in my language class long ago, is one of few with a Cambodian child as the main character

I've been fascinated by GapMinder's Dollar Street website, which has photographed hundreds of families and their homes in fifty countries, reporting each family's country, spending power, and a bit of their hopes and dreams. The photos let you see a family's home in detail (where do they wash their hands? What does the floor look like? Where are clothes kept?) or view one category of photos, such as toilets or beds, across locations and incomes. 

In its article on books, GapMinder notes that book ownership correlates much more strongly with a family's wealth than with their country or region. The wealthiest families often have access to libraries as well. The number of books in the home is also a strong predictor of reading and educational attainment (Clark and Picton, 2018). As we read together, I couldn't help picturing all these kids ten or twenty years from now, shaped by such sharply contrasting opportunities around books. Dollar Street lets you view all 250+ families' books, but the article includes four representative photos. Which best reflects your home?

A poor family in Malawi: notebooks and religious texts in a box
A low to middle income family in Indonesia: two shelves of educational resources

A middle to high income family in Bulgaria: some leisure reading for adults on display

A wealthy family in Sweden: many fiction and nonfiction books on display

Though Ethan, Liz, and their three kids live in a small two-bedroom apartment, on a fraction of the salaries they'd earn as doctors back home, hundreds of miles from a public library, their crowded bookshelf and online library access accurately mark them... like me... as being among the world's richest. Looking at book collections on Dollar Street was a sobering reminder to them and me of our privilege. Books have enriched our lives in ways that no change in employment status or global economy could take away. 

Children's books in particular have offered me a unique invitation to connect intergenerationally and cross-culturally. They invite us into conversation and imagination, and they help lay a foundation for future learning. I'm moved by Liz's response to this post earlier today: "We've given away so many books in Africa [they spent 2 years in Cameroon] and here, and I'm still always thinking how much more we have than people around us." May I follow her and Ethan's example of giving freely and gratefully. I don't want to be embarrassed of my book privilege, or to let it divide me from others, but to share the wealth with those around me however I can. Maybe imitating a library is a way to bring Paradise just a little bit closer.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

None like Him: awe of God in the COVID era

This week, I’m revisiting Jen Wilkin’s excellent book None like Him: 10 Ways God is Different from Us (and Why That’s a Good Thing). This book consistently comforts and humbles me, broadening my perspectives. As COVID-19 disrupts nearly everyone’s lives, it's a timely reminder for me. (Don't let the flowery cover fool you... this is not just a women's book.)

Wilkin starts by urging readers to regain a fear of God. She quotes Psalm 111:10 – “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” - and defines this fear as a “worshipful reverence and awe” (p. 12). Fear of the Lord holds two truths in balance. On one hand God is an approachable, tender Father, and on the other he is transcendent, glorious, and mighty. We need this second truth because in missing God’s majesty, we persuade ourselves of someone else’s majesty, which never ends well.

Wilkin goes on to present ten ways in which God is unlike us. He is...

1. Infinite – the God of no limits. 

Whatever we can measure, we think we can somewhat control: our circumstances, our peers, ourselves. Am I smart? Rich? Moral? Safe? Humans can be measured. God can’t. But “paradoxically, he who is immeasurable is himself the measure of all things” (p. 20): he sets boundaries for oceans, numbers our days and hairs, counts the stars and sand. Our limitations show us that unlike God, we are finite. From the beginning of time, from a child’s earliest steps, we try to rival God. We grasp at the traits that describe God alone (see the rest of this list), instead of cultivating the traits he invites us to reflect, like holiness, love, and wisdom. We worship ourselves and those around us, expecting humans to be limitless, and are invariably disappointed. But God numbers our sins and sorrows, exceeding them with his boundless grace. He teaches us a new way to count:
  • counting others above ourselves (Phil. 2:3)
  • counting everything as loss compared to knowing Christ (Phil. 3:7-8)
  • counting it all joy when we face trials (James 1:2)
2. Incomprehensible – the God of infinite mystery. 

Familiarity breeds contempt. Those in Jesus’ hometown devalued him because they thought they knew all about him. But God can’t be fully known. While he shows us enough of himself to sanctify us, believers get to spend now through eternity discovering him, without fathoming his entire character. Unlike getting to know another person, since God is 100% good, we can be sure these discoveries will be good: reasons to enjoy him more and more. We want to think we’re incomprehensible, and we conceal our sins and ulterior motives, even from ourselves. Yet God fully knows us… all our strengths and struggles… and fully accepts us in Christ. Remembering this truth helps us avoid judging others, accept correction, and celebrate God’s character.

3. Self-existent – the God of infinite creativity. 

Do you feel inspired or intimidated by everyone posting about their quarantine DIY projects? All humans are creative in some capacity, whether making sculptures, smoothies, spreadsheets, or storage. But we’re not creating out of nothing; we’re re-combining existing materials. By contrast, “God, who is uncreated, created everything” (p. 45). What he made, he owns. As members of his creation, we’re responsible to guard others’ lives and care for creation. Worshiping created things and people is ultimately self-worship, as we view them as something to consume and discard. Like Nebuchadnezzar, we easily confuse stewardship with ownership, using God’s gifts to build our own kingdoms (Daniel 4). Recognizing God as the only true Creator shows us that our value comes from his authorship. Furthermore, when we mourn the absence of love or hope or repentance in our lives or relationships, we can trust “our Creator-God [who] specializes in bringing forth something from nothing” (p. 52). Let’s create joyfully and freely with the gifts entrusted to us, reflecting and worshiping our Creator.

4. Self-sufficient – the God of infinite provision. 

Covid has disrupted many people's normal way of meeting their needs. We have many needs; God has none. He wasn’t lonely without us, since the Trinity already enjoyed perfect relationship. He doesn’t rely on our faithfulness, morality, or performance. A need is a limit, and if God had needs, he could be controlled or manipulated. Because he’s self-sufficient, he cannot be tempted. Americans revere independence and often link our needs to our failures. But human needs pre-date the Fall, and we all need God and other believers. “Sanctification is the process of learning increasing dependence, not autonomy” (p. 63). Denying our need for God and others causes problems including prayerlessness, anger in trial, concealment, and exhaustion. Jesus modeled for us how to trust God with our needs. Since he’s fulfilled our greatest need, we can trust him to provide all other needs! Let’s acknowledge those needs, asking God and others for help, and offering help to others.

5. Eternal – the God of infinite days. 

Time defines us. “We are all products of our generation, tightly bound to the history into which we were born” (p. 70). But God exists outside of time and acts within it as he wills. All his actions within time happen at just the right time. Like children who don’t yet grasp the concept of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, we question God when his logic is beyond us. Even when we’re at a loss to understand, we can trust our time to our timeless God. That means…
  • making good use of the present by avoiding laziness or compulsive busyness
  • letting go of regret or idolatrous nostalgia about the past, and
  • avoiding sinful anticipation or anxiety about the future.
In Psalm 90, Moses contrasts our eternal God with temporary humans, asking, “So teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom” (verse 12). How do we use these days? “Here is a remarkable truth: God is able to bring eternal results from our time-bound efforts” (p. 79). Let’s spend our time where it counts: investing in people for eternity.

6. Immutable – the God of infinite sameness. 

God is often described as a rock, unchanging as all around him ebbs and flows. His attributes cannot change because they are infinite. His Word is unchanging; His promises and judgments are reliable. We, by contrast, experience constant change in our bodies, minds, and circumstances. Struggling to grasp God’s immutability, we seek temporary solace in someone or something that seems unchanging. Worse, when our sin is exposed, we say, That’s just me. I can’t change. As if our tendencies could outweigh God’s grace! “Just as my assurance of salvation rests in the fact that God cannot change, my hope of sanctification rests in the fact that I can” (p. 87). When we argue with others, we use phrases like you always… you never…, but these words, like the always and never love of 1 Corinthians 13, apply to God alone. Let’s abandon the idolatry of always and never with anyone else, taking refuge instead in God our rock.

7. Omnipresent – the God of infinite place. 

We humans can be in only one place at a time. (And during lockdown, that time might be much longer than we'd like.) God, on the other hand, is fully present everywhere at all times, despite remaining distinct from his creation. Our perceptions of his presence are limited and unreliable. Recent advances have enabled us to conduct business, spread knowledge, and build relationships across geographic boundaries. But every time we Skype, text, or shop online, we diminish our presence in (and attention to) our current location. As many have noted recently, social media is a poor substitute for in-person interaction. God can fully engage with us because He is present where we are. This truth should make us vigilant about sin (which we can’t hide from him) and secure in his comforting presence. Unlike human parents who must give their children increasing space as they grow up, God’s relationship with believers only changes from lesser to greater, culminating in eternity together. Though our bodies restrict us to one place at a time, God’s full presence dwells with each of us, and so we can each be fully present wherever he puts us.

8. Omniscient – the God of infinite knowledge. 

God never learns new things, and he never forgets. His knowledge is limitless. By contrast, learning is essential to the human experience. “There is a difference between healthy learning and information gluttony: one is about being fully human, and the other is about craving limitlessness” (p. 111). We're not designed to know it all. Coveting boundless knowledge can lead to information overload in the digital age, diminishing our attention, decision-making, action, and empathy. (Was I the only one compulsively googling this week?) Adam and Eve likewise sought knowledge not meant for them. We want to know the future and other people’s situations. We meddle, gossip, and hover, multiplying “their troubles and ours” (p. 116). The solution? Trust God, resting in four truths:
  • You cannot outsmart God.
  • You cannot bargain with God.
  • You cannot fool God.
  • You cannot rely on God to forget.
Instead of gorging ourselves on the information buffet, we can unclutter our minds with Psalm 131 and mind our own business: to understand what God has revealed, and to employ our minds in rightly loving God.  

9. Omnipotent – the God of infinite power. 

Natural disasters (like pandemics) let us glimpse power and powerlessness. Job comments in 26:14 that nature’s awesome displays of God’s power are “but the outer fringe of his works; how faint the whisper we hear of him! Who then can understand the thunder of his power?” God is a strong Father who longs to protect his fragile children, and we’re called to imitate him in protecting the weak. But when we fall for the lie that our obedience has earned our strength, we use our finite power to serve ourselves, not God and others. Humans often grant power to the physically strong, the beautiful, the wealthy, and the charismatic. Jesus was none of these, yet he exhibited divine power over the physical realm to reveal his power over the spiritual realm. By healing the sick and calming the storm, he “pointed to the most dumbfounding miracle of all: the display of his power to transform the human heart from stone to flesh” (p. 134). He changes what is depraved and broken into a home fit for the Holy One. We can trust God’s limitless power because it’s paired with his infinite goodness.

10. Sovereign – the God of infinite rule. 

In light of attributes #1-9, “the most right and logical place for God to inhabit is a throne” (p. 140). As our author, God holds all authority. His commands are good and trustworthy; obeying him makes sense! Divine sovereignty (God bringing good where evil was intended) paraxodically coexists with human responsibility (we’re accountable to him for our wrong choices). Craving our own sovereignty, we seek control in four areas:
  • Our bodies: we’re called to care for – but not obsess over - our bodies regarding fitness, nutrition, hygiene, sleep, etc.
  • Our possessions: they’re ours to steward, not to worship. We shouldn’t dwell on acquiring, multiplying, or maintaining what we have.
  • Our relationships: All our relationships are an invitation to show God’s love, but conflict erupts when we seek control. Choose kindness instead.
  • Our circumstances or environments: Ambiguity isn’t fun. Feeling out of control, we often overplan for contingencies or depend on routines.
Our control issues stem from speculating about “what ifs.” But we can acknowledge God’s reign over these four areas, while we control our thoughts, attitudes, words, and actions to honor him. God is our rightful Ruler and his authority is worth celebrating.

Though humans vie desperately to rival God, it's a relief to acknowledge we can't. Wilkin closes with Psalm 139, crammed with God’s marvelous and infinite attributes. “Awe begets humility, confession, and submission” (p. 158). When we experience awe, we become less self-absorbed, better able to connect with God and others. 

In this post, I’ve tried not to give away Wilkin’s whole hand, but rather to whet your appetite for the real thing. Scriptures, humor, lyrical passages, discussion questions… there’s so much great content I’ve left out. Yet with just 158 pages, it’s an easy and engaging read. It would be a great book to discuss online with a friend or two!

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Look again

You know that feeling when you discover, 2 years in, that your weights aren't what you thought they were?

Nope, just me? Fine.

I was doing a Fitness Blender workout and thought, "10 pounds feels too light for this exercise. Maybe I can use two of the 6-pounders to step it up a notch." When I did, I noticed it didn't seem any heavier. I wondered if there was an incorrect label, so I weighed them.

Yikes, inflation! My "sixes" were really 3.7 lb (1.7 kg), while my "tens" were a mere 7.26 lb (3.3 kg). How did I never suspect this? No wonder I didn't feel an increase - the latter are almost exactly double the former, and BOTH of them are significantly off. Which means I've been overestimating my strength the past 2 years. Not like I work out that often or keep careful track of what I'm lifting... but if we ever meet again, I'm not sure whether to scold the shopkeepers or thank them for the self-esteem boost. 

I can easily assume I know what I'm looking at. I need fresh eyes to reexamine the familiar.

I just finished reading (and loving!) N.D. Wilson's Notes from the Tilt-a-whirl. It's a quirky yet profound book, combining Christian philosophy with observations on the minutiae of his surroundings:
  • The ants pouring out when he lifts a rock to mow the lawn. 
  • The man who elbows him in the head playing basketball. 
  • The functions of intestines. 
  • The quest of his toddler to touch a butterfly. 
He's got me thinking twice about the stories contained in dust, pebbles, and microbes. Here's a sample paragraph:
On that day, sitting on my log in the early stirrings of spring, the stream overwhelmed me. I sat, staring, trying to comprehend its sheer massiveness. Yes, its massiveness. I could have jumped over it (maybe) and yet it was beyond comprehension. I wanted to know how many molecules were sliding past me per minute. I wanted to know where they had spent their lives, lives that stretched back to the beginning of the world. Most of them had probably been snow, recently delicate, now reveling in the rough and tumble world of a fast mountain stream. Before the snow, where had they been? Steam coming off a cow’s back? Evaporation from a kiddie pool? Most were probably oceanic. Formerly waves. But before then? How many times had each of these molecules fallen from the sky, contributing some little corner to a snowflake? How many times divorced into lonely hydrogen and oxygen, how many times remarried? These things had traveled, no doubt. These things had even been around when Moses did his business with the Red Sea. Had they been there? Had they heard about it from friends?
The book inspired me to re-examine my surroundings. What extraordinary things have I convinced myself are merely ordinary? I usually think of my street as mostly walls that prevent me from seeing in. When I drive through on my moto or jog around in a group, there's not much time to ponder the sights, sounds, and smells of my block. 

So I decided to take a walk down my street, phone in hand, to snap photos. I've wanted to before, but I've been deterred by several things:
1. It's always hot and often sunny.
2. I stick out enough as a white person without doing weird things like taking pictures.
3. I don't want to make others uncomfortable by photographing them without permission.
4. Cambodian girls generally don't walk alone if they don't have to. I feel awkward strolling past groups of guys loitering in the shade, who are clearly observing me and probably commenting about me.

Anyway, I went out one late afternoon. A neighbor was waiting for a ride and asked where I was off to, so I explained my quest for the noteworthy in plain sight. "Oh, like the fancy trash can over there?" Not what I had in mind, but it's true, theirs is fancy by comparison. Most of us have our trash out in piles on the "sidewalk." This place across from me (maybe a clinic of sorts?) has a new cage to enclose their garbage. I note how precisely it fits into the gap between tiles, how perfectly it matches the color of my own building, how effectively it protect its precious contents from rats and dogs. And chickens, which astute observers will spot near the non-enclosed trash in photo #2.

Side note: When I was young and my mom bought me a diary, anticipating a wondrous glimpse into my thoughts and dreams, my first entry read "Today we went to the dump." (No trash pick-up in early '90s Waterbury, Vermont.) Now here I am, seeking to marvel at the extraordinary and starting with garbage again. I've come full circle. 

Don't worry, it gets better. My next stop was my favorite frangipani and other flowering trees. I've often taken time to enjoy them and even photograph them during my walk to church, so I wasn't sure I'd notice new things. But look at this: two different trees where the branches intertwined creating one multicolored bunch! It made me grin. They're so beautiful separately, but even better together.

Soon thereafter was the intersection with its decorative stop sign. See those wires hanging off the power lines? The ones that make me nervous every time I drive under them, even with my full-coverage plastic helmet? Small, fragile birds decided to build their nest there. They are nurturing the next generation, at best one millimeter of coating away from certain death by electrocution. Talk about dancing on the razor's edge. I have a newfound respect. 

Cambodia isn't big on zoning, and I knew there were some businesses interspersed on this largely residential street: a bus parking area, an ice manufacturer, a very classy hotel with a big sign that says "3 hours = $5." But a few struck me for the first time, like this mattress supplier. (Note the mattresses on the trailer as well as inside the gate.)

This next one wasn't new to me, but I've always been mystified by it. What is this structure, and why does it have bilingual labels? Is this like a training ground for construction workers? I've never noticed construction workers down there, though there are a bunch living next door to me in a new mansion they're erecting. (It's common for construction workers from the province to live on site, often with some family members along, until a building is complete.) 

The house under construction might soon rival this one.
My photography exercise made me realize just how many empty lots there still are on this block. New construction is going up all the time. It's probably unrecognizable from 5 years ago and will be again in 5 more years.

Remnants of a wedding

In those empty lots and other unkempt areas, I noticed a trend. Can you spot the abandoned spirit house in each photo below? I came across four different types.

This one is still standing and in good repair.

Later I found another one of this type leaning against my own building, with a paint can on top.

The weave has frayed on this one: it should be a solid surface with little paper dolls on top.
I've written before about Khmer Folk Buddhists' beliefs in a diverse spirit world, where each individual spirit's power to impact a life can wax and wane with time. While a spirit holds power, people go to great lengths to satisfy it with incense, fruit, and other offerings. Once convinced that a spirit has left a structure or become irrelevant to their lives, Cambodians freely dispose of the old houses. Seeing the plethora of abandoned spirit houses reminded me just how prevalent and deep these practices are. 

Coming back, I knew I'd pass my neighbor Panny's house and shop, and sure enough her daughter called out to me to come say hi. Which I didn't mind! People are definitely the most fascinating part of this street. Unlike most of us, Panny's building doesn't have a gate out front, so it feels much more accessible for me to visit her shop out front, where other residents congregate. Since there were people watching, I didn't photograph the alleys that lead to one-room units, but they look a bit like building #2, visible from my balcony. 

This one seems to have 6 units on either side.

I came home just in time to enjoy the sunset by my building. My walk gave me way more input than I could process in one go, but it was still pretty cool to start the reflection process. N.D. Wilson was right... there's so much around us that merits a closer look. 

My apartment is visible here: it's the end unit, 2nd story, in the right-hand building.